Heartbreaking farewells, early departures and crooked managing boards are all important parts of the Partizan Belgrade club ethos. When you follow the Black & Whites of Belgrade it doesn’t take too long to become disillusioned and realise that rich foreign clubs will inevitably come after your most gifted bairns (there will always be odd Azeri or Spanish Secunda team to take on the crap ones).
Despite winning the league confidently back in 2011-12 Partizan were struggling in front of the goal. Marko Šćepović was lazy and on his way out. Ditto his useless brother. Stevan Jovetić long gone to Fiorentina. One bloke from the pub was constantly banging on about this big, hard and restless kid from U-17s who was growing a Mohawk, scoring goals for fun and getting himself sent off in most extraordinary fashion. In fairness, I was intrigued.
Fast forward to the Champions League qualifier versus Valetta in July 2012. Big, hard and restless kid called Aleks was brought on in the second half and scored an easy poacher effort after only 9 minutes. But it wasn’t the quick goal that made me like him instantly. It was the physique, confident movement (perhaps cocky and overconfident for a debutant) and determination to get stuck in and have a go from any given position. I’ve seen some fine strikers coming out of the Partizan stable (Milošević, Kežman, Delibašić, Jovetić, just to name a few) but this kid had something very special about him.
I sensed something romantic and so 1980s about the boy. Perhaps it was the mixture of his genuine – borderline naïve – behaviour in front of the cameras, honest relationship with the fans, no-nonsense attitude in the box.
In the age of corporate badge-kissing, Mitrovic came across as if he really meant it! I’m not sure how to square this rationally, but you can almost feel that he understands how much a goal, a tackle, a trophy or an elbow mean to the fans. And he duly delivers.
Having a local boy in the squad is something that always adds value and pride into the equation. It turned out that this big, cheeky fella used to walk with the Partizan boys until he became one of the players The Boys are cheering for. He definitely knew where we are coming from. In May 2013 he (literally) took the Serbian championship trophy to the stands. Etcetera, etcetera…
(Serb title celebration with the fans)
Mitrović scored after 9 minutes of his senior debut. More importantly, he also scored 9 minutes into his first Belgrade Derby, at the Red Star end. And he never stopped scoring.
Mitrović relishes the big occasion and evidently tries harder when it really matters. His only international goal for Serbia’s senior team was an important equaliser versus Croatia. Which is why I’m particularly looking forward to seeing him in action at the Mackems in October (watch your gonads, Cattermole!)
(Belgrade Derby debut)
(international goal v Croatia)
On genuine affection and bleeding the colours, I vividly remember when – with stitches and bandage on his head – Mitrovic refused to be subbed and continued the game versus Ludogorets. It wasn’t simply his blood and guts moment, Mitrović was definitely among better players on the pitch that night.
Since day one of his senior career, Mitrović was getting plenty of bad press, most of which was utterly unjustified and usually even unrelated to football. Red-top toilet rags tend to spend more time contemplating his tattoos, clothes, food taste and hair-style, than his performance. And what I tried to describe as dedication and affection in the paragraphs above, various media purists attach to Mitrović’s alleged ill-temper and crudeness.
Another real Mitrović classic worth sharing was his dismissal in Europa League fixture against Neftchi Baku in November 2012. He was sent off by Welsh official Simon Lee Evans because of tasty verbal exchange with the opponents’ Serbian keeper Sasa Stamenkovic, formerly of Red Star Belgrade.
The local press destroyed him, completely ignoring the fact that he scored the important equaliser beforehand… and that he didn’t initiate the bother. What we saw that night was only Aleks’ sincere reaction to pretentious bastardness of a repeated offender. And I challenge you to find a genuine football fan who would not do just the same.
(Neftchi incidents, Belgrade)
(Neftchi, payback time)
The vast majority of Partizan fans loved Mitrović greatly and embraced their anti-hero with all his colour and flavour (both real and fabricated by the malicious media) . He was soon dubbed ‘Sweet and Tender Hooligan’ (who said he’d never, never do it again… And of course he won’t – not until the next time). The kid who scores goals and only wants to be loved.
(Mitrovic chant ‘This barmy head…’)
Unsurprisingly, Mitrović’s premature departure was overshadowed by deep controversy.
The Partizan Chairman tried to convince us it was somehow ‘impossible’ to turn a £4m offer down (despite the fact that Mitrović was only 19 and had 3 years of his running contract left). A few hours later the transfer window slammed and Partizan had to play the rest of the autumn without a striker. But even then I thought Mitrović’s heart was unquestionably in the right place. He’d already agreed terms with Anderlecht, yet insisted on playing one last game for Partizan – the important Europa League tie at Thun.
Even after his move to Brussels, Mitrović used every opportunity to attend Partizan games. He also donated money to the cash-strapped basketball club. Partizan fans will never forget that.
(Mitrovic at basketball in May 2015)
Needless to conclude, I’m absolutely ecstatic about this signing. One of the best young players bred in my hometown team has joined my adopted team. He’s keen and I think he’s got plenty to offer in this important moment for Newcastle United.
He’s definitely not the first ‘sweet and tender hooligan’ in Toon’ and I fully expect the Mags to judge him by his commitment and his contribution and not because of what the gossip-hungry media are saying.
And to re-phrase Big Al’s welcome message slightly, I really hope Mitrović will enjoy Geordie hospitality, kindness, community spirit and passion for the game as much as I did.
Dusan Mihajilovic – Partizan Belgrade Fan and Serbian Mag.